This year, an Indian street food restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, an Indigenous restaurant in Minneapolis, and an African American chef at a fine dining restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, earned top awards at the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago.

Chai Pani, which serves affordable Indian street food in North Carolina, was awarded the best restaurant in America. Mashama Bailey, the chef of Savannah’s The Grey, won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2022, and Owamni led by Dana Thompson and chef Sean Sherman was judged as the Best New Restaurant.

“Black and brown folks, immigrants, mom-and-pop shops have been bubbling underneath the surface of this industry, working hard for a long time establishing our place in American food. I stand on the backs of many of them and today a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef,” Bailey said when accepting the award.

Mashama Bailey of The Grey

The Growing Influence of Ethnic Food

Few things are more universally accepted as food, no matter where it comes from. Every ethnic group in the United States and every immigrant community or region that settles in this country brings a taste of home and, at the same time, is influenced by the ingredients and traditions already here.

At a recent Ethnic Media Services briefing, speakers Quincy Surasmith, Managing Editor, Feet in 2 Worlds, Kayla Stewart, award-winning food and travel writer, and Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose company “Barrio empire” has restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona, examine the growing influence of food created by ethnic and immigrant communities and what the meaning of “authentic” food is. 

Americanization Of Ethnic Food – Why Chop Suey Is An American Classic

We have all seen our community’s food transform from its original form and influence people in the United States. What gets to be a classic American cuisine and what gets to be traditional and authentic? There are a few foods that come from Asian American cuisine that have become classic “American” foods, adapting and changing to become part of the tapestry of the food here. Quincy Surasmith stresses that many a times this adaptation comes not from outside pressures, for example a white customer base, but from the immigrant community. “A classic example is Chop Suey, which is not a traditional dish in China, but made by Chinese-Americans in the US. Fortune cookies are not found anywhere except in America! A traditional cookie in Japan, but it is not an everyday cookie but for special occasions.”

Does this “customization” of ethnic dishes help immigrants adjust to America or get woven into the fabric of American life and does this affect their ethnic identity? There are so many examples of this where chefs, like LA’s Park’s Finest BBQ, are taking classic Filipino flavors and mixing them with local flavors or the very popular “curry’ pizzas that are prevalent in the Bay Area. This change and shift is in part a cultural influence and in part influenced by what ingredients are available to immigrant chefs in their adopted country.

“In Korean restaurants, ribs are called LA Galbi, referring to the style of cutting meat in Los Angeles. These are examples of how things change because of cultural influence and what is available,” adds Surasmith.

Traditional vs Authentic vs Modern Ethnic Cuisine

There is a difference between traditional and authentic, and even though our palates have undergone something of a renaissance over the past century, evolving to incorporate the cuisines of the immigrants who have made the United States their home, we still want our “ethnic foods” fast and we want them cheap.

Food and travel writer Kayla Stewart, born in Texas, with roots in Louisiana and Mississippi, said many people assume African-American food is mac and cheese, collard greens and fried chicken. “These foods in particular have actually been used as ways to insult us, or impart stereotypes that have existed for centuries.”

The more we know about a culture, the more we can understand about its nuance. African American cuisine has been diverse and an important catalyst to American food ways, their foods are part of the American tapestry. Foods like sweet potato pie, mac and cheese, okra, and black eyed peas, all have roots in Africa, and have been brought over or developed through relationships that black people had with the indigenous population and the whites that lived on the land.

New Orleans, home to Creole and Cajun cuisine would simply not exist without black hands. Quintessential dishes that are iconic like étouffée and muffulettas come from slaved African Americans who were in these kitchens—some of the slaves were trained by their masters while others brought the knowledge from Africa. “For so long, African-American culinary figures have been left out of the narrative of American food; And that is not only blatantly unfair, but it also has an impact on the economy, because in many ways they have been oppressed in the restaurant and food industry, and their ideas have been co-opted.”

“Shut Up And Cook” – The Politics of Ethnic Food

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza encapsulates how all three speakers are from different cultures but the undercurrents are the same. She has been threatened with “Shut up and cook!” “There’s no politics in food,” basically, be the woman in the kitchen and cook and be silent.

However, there is a lot of politics in food. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of Merced, California, watching migrant workers not only go to her uncle’s bakery for bread but for help from her, then a 10 year old, who had to translate for them. Her bakery was a hub that taught her that service to the community is through our food and our bread. That the immigrant hand is very important in the food that we serve–corn, tomatoes, beans, chocolate are the gifts that Mexico gave the world.

Esparza stresses that discrimination is widely prevalent. America’s food is barbecue, a word that word has its own hashtag, #barbecuenation. Esparza says  as she traveled the country to study barbecue as a Mexican chef, she found “that there is a white supremacy that has taken over that food. There is a supremacy moniker that has been put on that food, where it’s typical of not assimilation but appropriation, because that food developed out of the Mexican culture.”

Red Sauce On Everything!

We all know that Mexican food in the United States is not what we get in Mexico. It is necessity food. “I think of my grandfather who came in the early 1900s, and by 1919 he was in Santa Barbara, turning desert land into fertile ground; and I envisioned him bringing some chilis from Durango in his pocket to make them grow and eating the rest, because as immigrants they moved from one place to another. That’s how the red sauce developed in the United States.”

Mexican food in the United States is red sauce on everything and yellow cheese. These are necessity foods, given to us by discrimination and capitalism. It’s money as the bottom line.

When Esparza opened her first restaurant, 20 years ago, customers expected a Mexican chef to give them salsa and chips. She gave them none. “I am a baker’s daughter, I gave them bread! I didn’t give them sauces, but served regional food and used that as an opportunity to change misperceptions not only about food from Mexico but about culture.”

And that fight still goes on, “People demand crispy tacos, and go to Taco Bell, but when you have a fresh crop of Oaxacan immigrants in Los Angeles giving you extraordinary food, from street food to the highest-end chefs that we have in Southern California, why not study and honor it.”

Using Ethnic Food To Counter Systemic Racism

Kayla Stewert, “systemic racism is very real and food can be used talk about history and politics and race and gender and women’s rights.”

Sandy Close, of Ethnic Media Services sums it up with great hope, “Reading through our local newspapers, we see ethnic food spotlighted, not as ethnic food, but as food we eat. That is such an intimate experience, consuming food that people have brought over from their rich cultural backgrounds. There is a loss of optimism in our country, when so many negative things are happening and yet when Stewart said ‘fusion is good,’ this is really a powerful idea that when we come together, when we mix our foods and share it at the same table, then culture trumps politics. And food is central to culture.”

“Restaurants are so much greater than the sum of what’s inside the four walls. A restaurant has the power to transform — transform the people that work there, transform the people that come in, transform the communities we’re in, transform society. Restaurants can transform the world,” says Meherwan Irani, chef and founder of Chai Pani, that earned the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant.

Image: Insta/ @chaipani

Image: Mashama Bailey @MashamaBailey Insta

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...